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An Elected Government in Bangladesh and India's Options

Sreeradha Datta is Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • December 23, 2008

    If all things go well, Bangladesh should have an elected government in January 2009 following the Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament) elections. Contrary to much scepticism, the caretaker government headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed has embarked upon fulfilling its promise of holding free and fair elections on December 29, 2008. This caretaker government received groundswell support because it was viewed as an instrument of democracy in Bangladesh, something that the previously elected government was unable to deliver at the end of its tenure in 2006.

    The achievements of the caretaker government in the spheres of political reforms and anti-corruption have been mixed. The inability of the anti-corruption commission to investigate fully and provide clinching evidence resulted in hundreds of the arrested persons being set free; on one particular day, the High Court granted bail to over 200 persons. The caretaker government has received flak for being lenient towards members of the religious parties. More importantly, it chose to ignore the Islamist group wielding its influence in the social sector. The attempt to introduce a bill ensuring equal rights to women was squarely squashed by these groups. Some members even went about destroying baul statues, symbols of the country’s secular ethos, but administrators preferred to look the other way.

    Despite these, institutional growth in Bangladesh has been visible in the last 23 months. Not only has the judiciary become independent, but the Election Commission and the Anti-Corruption Commission also became autonomous and assertive. This is likely to go a long way in ensuring democratic governance in Bangladesh. The People’s Representative Order ordinance introduced in July 2008 prescribed the rules and behaviours for political parties as well as candidates. These rules made it necessary for the Jamaat Islami to rename itself as the Bangladesh Jamaat Islami and forced it to open its membership to non-Muslims as well. However, as demanded by the law, none of the political parties have agreed to completely dissociate themselves from their student groups, nor have they disclosed their sources of funding. Internal democracy within political parties has never found much favour with Bangladeshi leaders, though the Awami League can be credited for having introduced some reforms at its grassroots level. This is not true for other political parties like Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jatiya. This time around, Jatiya Party leader Ershad has assumed the role of a queen maker, having negotiated for 48 seats from the Awami League led 14-party coalition.

    The ability to transform an electoral democracy into a functioning democracy will largely depend on the role the two main political parties play in the ensuing months. Irrespective of the outcome, the Jatiya Sangsad would have to emerge as the centre piece of politics. Mature political behaviour would require not returning to the culture of street protests and violence, which are a sure recipe for increasing the influence of the Islamists and the military in the country’s political affairs.

    The election holds significance not only for Bangladesh but is being watched keenly by all regional and extra regional powers. India is no exception in this regard. Any political development in Bangladesh directly impinges on its largest neighbour. Indeed, in India, there is a high level of expectations albeit mixed with apprehensions about the direction that post-election Bangladesh would take. Notwithstanding which of the two major political alliances is voted to power, India would have to seriously re-examine its Bangladesh policy in the light of a number of recent developments. Some of India’s policy options include:

    • Early return of democracy in Bangladesh serves India’s interest. Though the caretaker government offered a tension-free political climate and opportunity, by its very nature it has been a temporary arrangement. Any prolongation of the caretaker government would mean subversion of democracy and rule of law. Despite the obvious problems with elected governments, an early restoration of democracy and the holding of free and fair multiparty elections serve Indian interests.
    • Shared cultural affinity could be a liability if there is no holistic Indian policy towards Dhaka. The border states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura share geography and cultural linkages with Bangladesh and they also have greater economic and trade interactions with it. The understanding and experience of these states could provide valuable inputs to New Delhi to enhance bilateral co-operation. At the same time, bilateral relations should not be governed exclusively by the needs of and pressures from these border states, and especially that of West Bengal.
    • Security issues would need tangible action and not declaration of intention. While the caretaker government was appreciative of India’s security concerns, there were very little tangible changes on the ground. An elected government in Bangladesh, by its very nature, would be less accommodative than the caretaker government of technocrats. India therefore should be willing to scale down its expectations once an elected government takes over in Bangladesh.
    • Leaders from Bangladesh should not be allowed to use Indian territory for political campaigns. In recent years, New Delhi has allowed visiting Awami leaders to criticise the BNP government and its leaders. This has generated unnecessary controversies and ill-will in Bangladesh and generated an impression that India was indulging in partisan politics.
    • Unilateral trade concessions offered by India would have to be implemented and strengthened. During the 2007 SAARC summit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh unilaterally offered to reduce tariff and non-tariff barriers for imports from Bangladesh. It is in India’s interest to facilitate trade and economic engagement with Bangladesh. Even if the outcomes are limited, they offer a strong economic constituency in that country and could strengthen bilateral ties. This is so even if Bangladesh is unable to reciprocate Indian economic concessions.
    • The strengthening of private entrepreneurship. Long-term economic co-operation alone could provide substance to bilateral relations and might enable both countries to overcome their political differences. Economic interactions would have to be promoted primarily through private and non-governmental enterprises because perceived official patronage proved to be problematic for large projects (for example, Tata investments).
    • India should continue the current policy of remaining neutral and uninvolved. Without appearing to be overtly pro-Indian, key Western players such as the US, UK and EU have worked closely with New Delhi while dealing with Bangladesh. Such a posture serves India well and New Delhi should continue to maintain a correct distance vis-à-vis various constituencies within Bangladesh.
    • India would have to create time-bound bench marks to monitor progress. Irrespective of which political party forms the next government, India would have to keep the momentum flowing. At the same it would have to establish clear bench marks for bilateral relations. These should not only be realistic but should include tangible targets that should be monitored periodically. Otherwise, India would have squandered the window of opportunity that has been provided by the non-political caretaker government.

    In the aftermath of the recent Mumbai attacks, India’s patience for governments giving space to extremists is in deficit. The onus thus would now be on the newly elected government in Dhaka to not only show its earnestness in that sector but also to send a clear signal that Bangladesh is equally keen to continue its engagement with India. Despite the last few years of political uncertainty, Bangladesh has been able to maintain a steady growth. Deepening economic engagement with India will further speed up this growth. The favourable political conditions in Bangladesh for the last two years have enabled the two countries to address some of the key issues in their bilateral relations. It is in the interest of both that their joint willingness to work together be reflected in future relations as well.